Former Chief Petty Officer Robert P. Coles Jr., a Pearl Harbor survivor, sat at a table Sunday night in the Cheverus High School cafeteria surrounded by a group of admirers who listened while he recalled the day 73 years ago that the Japanese Navy attacked Hawaii.

Coles, 90, and Rear Adm. Thomas Reck were the guest speakers at the annual Wreaths Across America event, which each December brings a patriotic convoy of tractor-trailer trucks filled with balsam wreaths through Portland on its way south to Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington, D.C.

The wreaths are provided by the Worcester Wreath Co. of Harrington in Washington County. They are placed on the graves of servicemen and women.

For the past four years, the convoy has stopped at Cheverus High School in Portland, where a ceremony is held in the Keegan Gymnasium. Portland police Officer Kevin Haley, the Cheverus High School swimming and diving coach, came up with the idea for the ceremony. Haley’s brother, William, a member of the military, died in 1996 and is buried at Arlington.

Karen and Morrill Worcester, owners of the Worcester Wreath Co., were among the guests. Maine’s first lady, Ann LePage, rode with the convoy on an open three-wheeled motorcycle with the Patriot Guard Riders, who are escorting the truckloads of wreaths. She was joined Sunday night by her husband, Gov. Paul LePage.

Coles, who will turn 91 later this month, now lives in Machias, where he has his own lawn-mowing business. Retired Navy officer Dennis Boyd of Cutler, who is writing Coles’ biography, said Coles was a 17-year-old seaman stationed on the USS Bagley, a destroyer, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

Coles had just finished eating breakfast when he spotted enemy planes approaching. He broke open a locker, loaded a machine gun, and opened fire, hitting two Japanese planes in the process.

“He didn’t shoot them down, but he did hit them,” Boyd explained.

As Coles finished talking about his Pearl Harbor experience to the group in the cafeteria, he broke into a smile.

“And that was my whole day. The attack lasted 10 minutes short of two hours,” Coles told the group. “It was a hell of a way to wake up, but the Good Lord was watching over me.”

The truck convoy will make a series of stops Monday between Scarborough and Topsfield, Massachusetts, as it travels south. It is expected to arrive at Arlington National Cemetery on Saturday morning. Wreaths Across America is aiming to have a wreath for every headstone – more than 200,000 of them – for the 150th anniversary of Arlington National Cemetery.

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

[email protected]

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